With awards season upon us, the question on the tip of many red carpet hosts’ tongues is ‘Who are you wearing?’ Nowadays, thanks to an omnipresent media coverage and the breakneck speed at which information travels, we’re privy to the designers of the famous and rich members of the world, from Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton, to the starlets of the red carpet brigade and beyond.
Of course, over the years, well-known designers and dressmakers have been trying to make their brands as ubiquitous as possible, but, long before even the technology of radio was available to the masses, individual dressmakers made their livings, frequently in their immediate locale, and in the process becoming lost in or simply overlooked throughout the course of history. Thus, in the hopes of shedding some light on these artisans, for this week’s Gal-lery, I present to you Elizabeth Keckley (although it is sometimes alternately Keckly), personal seamstress to a First Lady with whom many are familiar.
Much of what is known of her life is detailed in the memoir Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (you can download the Kindle edition for free!), which she published in 1868, and, most recently, Keckley, along with her unique relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, was the inspiration for Mary T. and Lizzy K., a play by Tazewell Thompson. Keckley was also a character in Paula Vogel’s play A Civil War Christmas; additionally, she was included as a character (albeit in a very brief part)in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
What about Ms. Keckley makes her so admirable? Her drive and accomplishments were extraordinary, indeed, for in February of 1818 in the state of Virginia, Keckley was born into slavery, and suffered as such for 38 years of her life. She honed her fabric craft and eventually bought her own freedom (and her son’s, George, who, sadly, died whilst fighting in the Civil War) from her St. Louis slaveowners for a sum of $1200.
With her business savvy and ability to network, Keckley was able to build a clientele that included the elite of Washington DC, who admired and desired her precise and elegant handiwork with fabric and needle. Soon after President Lincoln’s election in 1861, Mary Todd hired her to become her personal dressmaker.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many known extant garments available, but with Keckley’s sophisticated style, certain gowns and outfits belonging to Mrs. Lincoln have been attributed to this talented woman.
In addition to her business acumen, design and sewing skills, in 1862, Ms. Keckley also instituted an organization known as the Contraband Relief Association, which provided necessities such as housing, food and medical attention to newly-freed slaves. Overall, this remarkable woman’s perseverance, in addition to her aforementioned qualities, make her a woman of note not just in the world of fashion and design history, but in women’s history as well.
Keckley, Elizabeth. Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House: G.W. Carleton & Co., Publishers, 1868. Print.
Spivack, Emily. ‘The Story of Elizabeth Keckley, Former-Slave-Turned-Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker’. Smithsonian. 2013. Available from Smithsonian.com. Accessed February 1st, 2015.
Williams, John. ‘A Strong Thread in a Torn Union.’ The New York Times. 2013. Available from The New York Times. Accessed February 1st, 2015.
‘Mary T. and Lizzy K.’: History’s Unlikely Friendship. NPR. 2013. Available from NPR. Accessed February 1st, 2015.
Who would you like to see represented here? Do you have a particularly inspirational woman from history whom you positively admire? Let us know in the comments below!